This week the American decorative arts community lost one of its most important figures when Don Carpentier passed away after battling ALS for three years. I met Don last year and although I only knew him a short time, he quickly became my friend and someone with whom I frequently conversed about a new-found passion of his–the work of the Bissett family of stoneware potters in Old Bridge, New Jersey. For those unfamiliar with Don, his accomplishments in the fields of decorative arts, early American material culture, and historic preservation were absolutely staggering. As a young man he began moving historic buildings to his parents’ property in East Nassau, New York–a project that would coalesce into Eastfield Village, a group of period buildings that serve as a campus for lectures and programs on historic preservation and material culture. (Martha Stewart once featured Eastfield on her television show, and you can watch that video here.)
I first met Don over email in the spring of 2013 and in person at Eastfield in June of that year, where I was speaking as part of the annual ceramics symposium held there–commonly referred to as “Dish Camp.” In the lead-up to the event, Don and I conversed over email and he asked me if I knew anything about the Bissett family of potters, because he was a descendant of Asher Bissett–a stoneware potter who had more or less fallen through the cracks of history and whom relatively few stoneware collectors had ever heard of. Don also told me that he was descended from Xerxes Price, a more famous stoneware potter who worked in Sayreville, NJ. By serendipity a person on Eastfield’s mailing list lived on the old Bissett homestead in Old Bridge and had discovered tons of wasters and kiln furniture on the property; she contacted Don when she saw he was going to present on Bissett at Dish Camp. Don was given some of this kiln refuse and was allowed to dig a well on the property that housed most of this material; he was very excited at the prospect of finding whole, extant examples of the Bissetts’ work (which he eventually did–lots of them). He was also anxious to locate shards that had been excavated by a well known early researcher of New Jersey stoneware named Robert Sim (as well as a young friend of his, James Brown) around the middle of the 20th century; I gave him some advice on where I believed Sim’s shards were but I had no idea that Don would do anything more with them than flesh out an obscure pottery whose work few collected or talked about.
Many of you reading this have either attended Dish Camp or know someone who has, but it is basically a great weekend spent amongst historic buildings, doing nothing but talking about ceramics. The lectures are held in the 1836 Universalist Church that Don moved to Eastfield in the early 1980’s, and attendees are encouraged to bring ceramics along with them and display them on the huge tables that run across the floor of the church, where the pews would be. The Friday I arrived I met Don and he was excited to show me what he had been working on. On a table at the back of the room I was blown away to see an almost exact replica of Xerxes Price’s famous man-in-the-moon stamp, fashioned out of tin. A master tinsmith, Don had whipped it together earlier that week and had rolled out a piece of clay to show it off. He also had a large amount of Bissett kiln refuse and could not wait to tell me about the mistakes he was finding in the established history of Old Bridge stoneware, and how his ancestors he felt had been more or less written out of that history.
Don’s presentation at Dish Camp included an anecdote about the first piece of pottery he ever made, as a boy–an ashtray that was fashioned to look like a fireplace, so when you put your cigarette inside, smoke poured out of the chimney. Since Don, in his adult life, had become nothing less than the preeminent maker of reproduction British diptwares, he seemed pretty convinced that something deep inside of him, which came down from his ancestors, had (perhaps unstoppably) compelled him to work with clay. If you aren’t familiar with Don’s mochaware, you should check it out. I remember the day he nonchalantly mentioned that he had made all the shell- and feather-edge pottery in the Russell Crowe movie, Master and Commander, and had also created primitive metal ware for Noah.
After Dish Camp, Don and I kept in touch as he forged ahead with his quest to see the story of his ancestors properly told, and their work brought forth into the light of day. Constantly he sought out photographs and documents that could help him put the pieces of the puzzle together. In October he published “The Morgan/Van Wickle Pottery: A Case of Mistaken Identity” in Maine Antique Digest, and I think he got a kick out of the controversy he had caused, as he accused Robert Sim of sweeping his ancestors’ work under the rug. Don believed that Sim had been obsessed with finding the work of the more high-profile Old Bridge pottery concern of James Morgan, Jr. and Jacob Van Wickle, and as such was sloppy in assessing what he was actually excavating–eventually pronouncing many products of Don’s ancestors as “Morgan/Van Wickle” and not “Bissett.” When Don wrote his article, he believed that Sim and Brown had never found any significant kiln refuse from that Morgan operation, and reading what Sim actually published on the matter, it was a good conclusion; later, after digging into the personal letters that Sim and Brown exchanged during the time period, he determined that some Morgan wasters were, in fact, found after Sim’s publication by a high school student poking around near a ball field distant from the Bissett pottery site. Unfortunately although shards from both the Bissett and Morgan sites were procured by Sim, ambiguous and sometimes incorrect labels make evaluating them very difficult.
Don’s work has laid the groundwork for further intensive studies on Old Bridge–and by extension, New Jersey–stoneware. Over the months he accumulated hundreds of images that he collated in binder form and would lay out digitally with accompanying text in order to preserve his findings and ideas. Ever critical of how previous researchers had handled their shards, Don marked each of his meticulously with a Sharpie; I will never forget sitting with him at a Wegman’s in New Jersey earlier this year as he carried boxes of shards into the restaurant area for me to look at. Coming from a background as a highly-respected historian of refined English ceramics, a potter himself, and a craftsman of several different early American handicrafts, Don brought an eye to the study of American stoneware that I had honestly never seen before. In particular his ability to determine what tools were used to produce a particular pot and to use the slightest nuances in tools employed to assist in attributions was a real eye-opener for me. Noting that an essentially identical stamped four hearts motif was used at three different potteries operating in the first quarter of the 19th century, Don procured images of all three and by using transparencies was able to determine the dings and other nuances that separated one from the other.
Don was a true encouragement to me in my own research pursuits and I was immediately struck by his kindness, sense of humor and giving mentality as he went about trying to answer questions about his own ceramic ancestry. In reading the tributes that have been pouring out on the internet over the last couple of days, I can see that he impacted so many people’s lives in the way he did mine. I think the least I owe Don is a tribute to him and the work he did in this last year to correct the history of New Jersey stoneware–and to help in whatever way I can to make sure his research sticks around and is built upon to the end he was looking toward. Rest in Peace, Don. I will miss you!
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